Review of Steel Magnolias, Playhouse on Park
Bonds form between people, sometimes, because of where they’re from, who they know, what they do for a living. And, of course, where they hang out. In Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Susan Haefner, Truvy Jones’ beauty shop brings together several women who treat the place almost as a social club, a getaway space where their husbands and families and the town’s demands can be kept at a distance. Camaraderie in a public space able to keep the world at bay sustains the play’s light comedy, while the shock of unpleasant reality, when it intrudes, is met with the ties of friendship. Because it doesn’t change, the beauty shop acts effectively as the stage upon which the day-to-day ups and downs of these women get aired and discussed and dealt with.
The play consists of four discrete scenes that take place over a span of just over two and a half years. In that time, much stays the same, but major changes take place for several characters, and minor but telling changes for others. The play’s dramatic arc follows the fortunes of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Susan Slotoroff), beginning on her wedding day, and introducing, early, the diabetic condition from which she suffers.
We meet all the characters in medias res, fully involved in their individual interests. A new-comer, Annelle (Lisa Couser), a recent hire to the shop, is an excuse for introductions as the women arrive one by one. First, there’s Trudy (Jill Taylor Anthony), a nurturing, down-to-earth figure who tends to wear updated—it’s the 1980s—hippie-threads; then there’s Annelle, a teenaged girl who, the older women are surprised to learn, already has a bit of “a past,” and who evolves in different directions as the play goes on, finding a home among these women while also remaining a little separate; Clairee Belcher (Dorothy Stanley) is the closest the town has to a grande dame—she was married to the late mayor—and she tends to enjoy getting up the bristles of her foil, Ousier Boudreaux (Peggy Cosgrave), the town’s prickly “character.” The mother-daughter duo, M’Lynn Eatenton (Jeannie Hines) and Shelby are distinctive if only because they represent two generations in the town.
The action of the play aims for a verisimilitude toward work-place friendships. Truvy and Annelle are often engaged in hair-styling, while the real action is what the women choose to talk about. There are offstage events that are comic—such as M’Lynn’s husband firing guns to scare away birds—and others that are more tense, such as relations with other townies or Annelle’s marital status. Jill Taylor Anthony handles Truvy with the requisite self-effacing, accommodating manner, though her charm is more southern folksy than southern genteel. All the other women have more issues, or more pride, or more definite intentions. Truvy just keeps things rolling along.
As the sparring elders, Peggy Cosgrave and Dorothy Stanley add a few sparks, but many of the one-liners are just smart-alecky without much behind them. The cast has a lot of space to work with and the best parts are when all are present and moving about almost independently, creating rhythms in which some comments are more overheard than directed. Not all the southern accents are as flawless as a good permanent, and even when inflections are right, the diction can sometimes suffer, making lines fall by the wayside. Steel Magnolias could be called dialogue-driven but it’s more like chat-friendly. We get the main issues even when some of the asides get lost.
The main dramatic issue—the fate of Shelby—doesn’t hit as hard as it might, but Act II, in which revelations come to light somewhat casually, plays much better than the at-times discursive Act I. Harling has a knack for how people who know each other well can intrude humor or drama into a conversation with very little fuss, and that helps to keep things buzzing.
As M’Lynn, Jeannie Hines is convincing as a worrying mother learning to back-off and, in her big outburst, she comes across as someone who can’t leave her feelings unsaid any longer. Watching her is often the most rewarding aspect of the show. As her daughter, Susan Slotoroff lets us see Shelby’s cheerful strength but we don’t ever seem to get at her heart, as niceness tends to be her only note.
As a play about inter-generational friendship, with enough nods to prayer and gay rights to make everyone feel welcome, Steel Magnolias is only as winning as its cast. At Playhouse on Park, the ladies are at their best after they’ve warmed to our presence a little.
By Robert Harling
Directed by Susan Haefner
Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook
Cast: Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Cosgrave, Liza Couser, Jeannie Hines, Susan Slotoroff, Dorothy Stanley
Playhouse on Park
January 10-28, 2018